No-Self, Part 1

For several months, I have been side-stepping the article I really want to write, because it is difficult, potentially upsetting to some readers if I say it wrong, and because “who do I think I am?”

I have been wanting to write about the Buddha’s teaching of “No-Self,” or Anatta, in the up-close and personal way I have come to experience it.

Joseph Cornell - "Medici Princess"

One of the saner things I did at the end my mis-spent youth, was to begin practicing meditation and contemplative spirituality.  Twenty-five years later I was still at it.   I had experienced incremental results: better, health, concentration, relaxation, and so on.  But something was still missing.

Around 2005 I was itching to drop some of my baggage of meditation techniques, theories and beliefs and “cut to the chase.”  To simplify!  It was like walking into a cluttered room and deciding some of the crap has to go.  My thoughts turned to  Zen practice because I had read The Three Pillars of Zen, and I couldn’t think of anything more bare-bones than just to sit and breathe, which I was (hopefully) going to continue doing anyway.

I had shied away from Buddhism because I once tried to read Thich Nhat Hahn and misunderstood what he had to say about “No-Self.”  I thought he was saying the soul or “true-self, that part of us that feels very valuable, is not real.  Buddhists do not say that “self” isn’t real, so much as they say it isn’t real in the way we think it is real.

I like the analogy to a rainbow.  A rainbow is real (while it lasts) but it isn’t real in the way it appears – and we’re better off not pinning our hopes to the pot of gold at the end.

Jerry Uelsmann - "Undiscovered Self"

Anyway, in 2005, I attended a Zen Sesshin (several days of morning-to-night practice) taught by a Catholic priest (which isn’t as uncommon as people might think).  It was…nice.  Not bad, not great, but overall, relaxing and…nice.  I appreciated the simplicity and it hooked me enough that I kept sitting like that once I got home.  And a few months later, nice turned into something a lot more powerful.

One evening during the holiday season, as I thought of family members and friends who were gone, and a parent who was ailing, I felt a profound sense of loss, of precious things slipping away.  But in the next instant a thought came; with perfect, instant, compelling clarity.  The thought just appearedWho is sad? And in that instant, there was nobody there! All that saddness was gone because there was no one there to feel sad.

I didn’t need the priest to confirm that it was the real deal, though he did a while later when I spoke to him again.   I got a further confirmation when I attended a daylong retreat led by Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher whose message is summarized in the title of his book, No Self, No Problem.  His basic suggestion for meditation is simply to rest from all physical and mental effort:

As we begin to rest and pay attention, we begin to see everything clearly.  We see that the self has no basis or solidity…We might want to apply this simple inquiry whenever problems arise.  If we feel angry or disappointed, simply ask, “Who is the one being angry or disappointed?”  In such an inquiry, inner serenity can effortlessly manifest…When all the layers of false identity have been stripped off, there is no longer any version of that old self.  What is left behind is pure consciousness.  That is our original being.  That is our true identity. No Self, No Problem pp. 5-6.

Anam Thubten

Anam Thubten’s website:


1 thought on “No-Self, Part 1

  1. This is so totally true. To let go of the ego, the perception of self, is the hardest thing to do these days. I try to do this with the practise of compassion. Once we direct our minds towards generating compassion for others, the self or ego is slowly forgotten. Compassion is part of the answer to life’s troubles.


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